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Interview with Jimmy Wales

by Roberto V. Zicari on February 21, 2009

“I don’t think of my work as technological innovation, I think of it as being social innovation.” (Jimmy Wales)

Tuesday, February 24, 2009. Marco Dettweiler and Roberto V. Zicari have interviewed Jimmy Wales.

Jimmy Donal “Jimbo” Wales (born August 7, 1966), President of Wikia, Inc.; Board member and Chair Emeritus of the Wikimedia Foundation.
His work developing Wikipedia, which has become the world’s largest encyclopedia, prompted Time magazine to name him in its 2006 list of the world’s most influential people.

Q. Mr. Wales, one of your new project is called Wikia? What is it?

We are building the rest of the Library. We are taking the Wiki model beyond just non profit educational and research community into things like humor, political activism, all kinds of different things.

Q. How does it compare Wikia with Wikipedia?

I would say, it`s the rest of the Library, it is everything that does not belong to an Encyclopedia. For example, Uncyclopedia is a humor site, it is a parody of Wikipedia, it is not a serious site, it is all a joke.
Another example, we have a site about Wikia Green , which is all about sustainable living, it is not a neutral site, it is specifically advocating for specific prospective in the world.
Another example we have, is Wikianswers , where people post questions and get quick short answers to various questions as rather than Encyclopedia Oracle that has a question answer format. There are many things that are different from an Encyclopedia.

Q. Another service offered by Wikia is Wikia Search. What is the difference with respect to other existing search engines (e.g. Google)?

The primary difference what I am trying to do is to put the editorial control into the hands of the community. Every search engine has an editorial component to it, where you type in a search term, and they tell you the things that you should be looking for related to that search term, and all of that is controlled very secretively in most search engines. My view is let`s try and open it up to public dialog and discussion and debate, so that the community can determine it.

Q. Does Wikia Search relate to Wikipedia?

Well, it is a completely independent search project. It is searching the entire Web and not anyone particular site, and so really it does not have anything to do with Wikipedia.

Q. Wikianswers: What is the difference with other services such as Yahoo! Answers?

I see two main differences. First it is a Wiki, meaning everyone works together to edit the same entries, rather then each person giving a separate different answer. So you work to improve answers that have been given by the community.
The other major difference is that all of the things we are doing are under Free License (open source license), as opposed to all the other answer sites where all of the work is kept under proprietary license; so the community doesn’t really have the ability to take that work and reuse it and move it to another site if they want to.

Q. How do you ensure you get some quality answers?

Well, then you see that on a lot of answer site you see a lot of very questionable answers, and people giving contradictory answers. The idea here is to have the community that oversight of what is going on. If somebody gives a bad answer, the community can delete it.

Q. Would you consider the work you do similar to what the Open Source movement does in the software industry?

Yes, it is a very strong parallel. Everything I am doing is based on the idea of free licensing and free licensing is really what it powers open source software, free software. All of the work we do is put under GNU free documentation license. The reason for this is that this overcomes certain very complicated problems that people face regarding whether or not they are going to spend a lot of time working on something, and so it is very, very similar. For all of the free software you have the right to copy, to modify, to redistribute and to redistribute modified versions, commercially and non-commercially and we follow the same philosophy. We want people to be able to take their work, any work that they have done using one of our services and reuse it as they see fit.

Q. Is Copyright of information a problem?

Not really, we don’t really see a huge problem with that. Of course sometimes you have people who have inadvertently or not understanding copyright law copied things inappropriately. But that is a pretty minor part of the overall situation. It is really not much different from software.

Q. Does your work relate to the Semantic Web?

Very little to do with that. I am a bit of a skeptical about the notion of semantic web, although we are finally beginning to see things move a little bit in the direction of semantic web. But I think, it is still a long way to go before a lot of the dreams that people have about a semantic web begin to become true.

Q. Wikia is a profit company, how do you generate revenues out of free information?

We are advertising support edit, so we have some Google-ads on the site, we have some display ads on the site – that is basically it. It is a very simple, very standard kind of model for a website.

Q. When do people use Wikia and when Wikipedia?

It is completely different, so the two reasons you might use something would be very, very different from each other. They are really not comparable in that sense. It is very similar to a library and I like to go back again and again to that metaphor. If you go to a library sometimes you are looking for an encyclopedia, sometimes you are looking for political activism, sometimes you are looking for humor, the next time you are using an almanac.
The reasons why people come across it are very different.

For example, if you go to Uncyclopedia, you will find something very different from Wikipedia. Your are going to laugh and have fun reading it. But if you need basic information you obviously want to go to Wikipedia.

Q. What kind of reaction did you have from the Community to the services of Wikia?

So the response has been very good. A lot of people find that Wikia is a fun place for them to spend some time building something and some people find that they are still more interested in Wikipedia. It just depends on the person and what they are interested in.

Q. You are thinking of introducing “Flagged Revisions” in Wikipedia. To what extent it will change Wikepedia?

Right now Flagged revision is being used extensively in German language Wikipedia and very successfully. We are watching very carefully the statistics around U search and how long it takes to approve things and all of this. We are in a learning process.
It seems to me a useful tool, I think we will be introducing some formal Flagged revisions into English Wikipedia within the next month or two. We are just discussing right now about how we should be doing it and what should be the right approach.

Q. Recently Wikipedia had problems with some individuals (for example in Germany), who sued Wikipedia because of supposedly “wrong facts” about them. W
hat is your opinion on that? Will this be a typical issue Wikipedia will have to face in the future?

I don’t think we will see a lot of that. In this particular case the politician was very embarrassed by his actions and ended up to apologize. It seems unlikely to be a really major factor for Wikipedia going forward.

Q. Wikipedia is currently being used by students (both at High Schools and Universities), but quotes from Wikipedia are not accepted by most of the Professors. Do you think this will change in the future? And if yes, how?

I think that it is important to think about what is the proper role of an encyclopedia in the research process over all. In general we don’t think of any encyclopedia as being something that you would cite as a source in an academic paper.
That is not what it has been designed to be about. You want it to be a very high quality, but even if it is a very high quality, it is always an introduction to material. It is always to provide you with the background context. It isn’t original research, it isn’t an academic journal.
When we are thinking about how should university students be using Wikipedia, I think we have to be realistic: They are using it all the time, all of them. So what we need to think about is a couple of questions: First: How do we make sure that they are educated on the right way on how to use an encyclopedia, and second how do we make Wikipedia as good as it possibly can be, because it is important for a lot of people.

Q. Some countries, such as China for example, impose a strict censorship on the Internet. Does a free of expression content repository such as Wikipedia has any chance there?

Wikipedia was completely banned in China for about three years. We are currently available in China. We have a policy that accurate information is a fundamental human right, and we won’t compromise with censors. What I see overall if I look at the overall trend, I see a trend for more openness on the Internet in China, but also in many other places around the world. I think that censoring the Internet is essentially impossible. You can have some impact and scare people. Really stopping the flow of information is becoming more and more difficult. I think that many countries around the world are realizing that it is not a very useful tool for a public policy to try to control the flow of information in the way it used to be controlled. So, I am reasonably optimistic, but there are so many problems around the world and I don’t think we are going to see very quickly the end of censorship, but I think we are generally moving in the right direction.

Q. What kind of innovation do you use?

Clearly, we are in an era where many new things are being created. I don’t think of my work as technological innovation, I think of it as being social innovation. The technology involved in almost everything that I am doing is pretty much off-the-shelf existing technology. We are not really trying to innovate on that level, although we are in some ways. Primarily what we are doing is social innovation, finding ways for people to work together in social communities online and figuring out what social rules and norms are helpful for people to create healthy and productive communities.

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